View near pond, Laysan Island, 1902. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 007006, Box 142, Folder 3, Image no. SIA2011-0839.

Almost here … World Migratory Bird Day 2019!

While only two years old, World Migratory Bird Day is just one of the latest evolutions in conservation awareness. Related celebrations go back more than twenty-six years and draw on over a century of research.

In just a few days, World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) will be upon us. The first celebration of the day under that name occurred a year ago, when three groups promoting bird conservation from different continents came together to create a global movement. Following what began in 1993 as an educational campaign and celebration of migratory birds, sponsored by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, similar efforts sprung up in Africa and Eurasia by 2006. Eleven years later, the Environment for the Americas, the Convention on Migratory Species, and the Agreement on the Conservation of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds announced a partnership to unite their education efforts to call people’s attention around the world to the plight and promise of these species. Together, these groups cover all the major migratory corridors around the world. WMBD is included in the United Nations Environment Programme.

A screenshot of a map of North and South America with different points throughout each continent.

Timing is everything

Over 350 species migrate from Canada and the United States to places in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America each year. When the celebrations first began under the name International Migratory Bird Day, it was decided that events in the different regions should reflect the birds’ migration times. As a result, events and programming are scheduled around the second Saturday of May in North America, and for sites from Mexico to South America, the celebrations occur in October when the flocks arrive in those locations.

A passion for birds that goes back well over a century

Naturalists and ornithologists have been fascinated with the behavior of birds for years beyond counting. At the Smithsonian Institution Archives, our collections contain personal records, field diaries, sketches, and more from individuals devoted to their study. Florence Merriam Bailey was a strong advocate for the study of birds, forming Audubon societies in the places where she lived when she was not in the field. She was a leader in the shift from studying birds in laboratories to observing them live in the wild, as noted in her work Birds Through an Opera-Glass. The Smithsonian’s second Secretary, Spencer F. Baird, was himself an ornithologist and mentor of Dr. Alexander Wetmore. Wetmore’s voluminous observations covered a wide span of time and included many visits to Central America, particularly Panama. 

A woman in a long, light colored dress, stand near trees. A tree branch, with many leaves juts in be A man leans against a jeep on a dirt road. Trees are in the background.

A complex relationship

Buried in these original documents, we see firsthand the tensions between migrating birds and the people who lived along their routes. For instance, Dr. Wetmore was working for the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey when, in 1915, he was sent to the Southwest to meet with farmers in Texas, New Mexico, and California. The farmers claimed that migrating ducks were damaging their crops. With troops in need of food during wartime, this needed the government’s attention. Wetmore and others studied the problem extensively and working with the farmers came up with a carefully balanced solution. 

Another zoologist noted for his work in Central and South America is Martin Moynihan. His detailed notes on bird species include appearance, behavior, and even their songs written in his own notation style. He became a pivotal figure in the establishment of a research facility on Barro Colorado Island and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. You can see in some of his field notes how he followed species as they migrated in order to better understand the scope of their experience over the course of their migrations.

Two stalks of plants with small leave on long branches.

We are “the village”

There’s an old proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. For migratory birds, it will take the collective efforts of people around the world to halt the decline of these species and improve their lot. When they thrive, we all benefit. Won’t you celebrate World Migratory Bird Day 2019 with us this Saturday and become part of “the village?”

M.H. Moynihan & C. Lehman in Colombia

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